In a political landscape that has brought Arab diaspora Trump, Brexit and a Jeremy Corbyn vote over the past few years, it appears that the underdog is alive and flourishing. So, when Putin declared he was running for office again late last year, you would not have begrudged anyone for dreaming.
This month we were given a quick reminder: this is Vladimir Putin, this is Russia. The rest of the world watched on, somewhat apathetically, assuming the result. None more so than the Arab world that looks to have, in recent years, returned to its position as the board game in which the West and Russia seek to reclaim their dominance.
March 18th saw Vladimir Putin secure a supermajority in the Russian elections in what could be seen as the most unsurprising political election since he last claimed office. His fourth presidential term will see him through to 2024, which means his reign at the top for 25 years will have only been surpassed by Josef Stalin.
Even more unsurprising, his election runs alongside international tension and accusations of corruption. In the lead up to this vote, Putin has had to deal with the allegation of Britain and its Western allies that Russia was involved in the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal in little old Salisbury in the UK.
Putin has had to deal with the all but true accusations of interference in elections around the world. Now, closer to home, the expected claims of duplicate voters, among many other signs of corruption in this most recent election. Even with all this going on for Putin, it is easy to see that he still wishes to pursue the aim of carrying huge political weight within the MENA region.
The Arab world’s relationship with Russia did not begin with Putin, yet the reasons have always remained generally the same. The Suez crisis of 1956 created a divide among Arab nations. Egypt, who had just witnessed the Free Officers Movement under Gamal Abdel Nasser and other socialist regimes such as Syria, Iraq and Palestine took to the side of the Soviet Union.
Whilst countries such as Lebanon and Jordan were supported by the West. The relationship was mainly built upon economics and security. The rise of neoliberalism in the West, turning countries such as Egypt’s dependence from Russia to the US, and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union destroyed its influence within the region.
Russia began to take a backseat in Arab politics after the fall of the Soviet Union. Economically, they didn’t have the resources to cope with hyperinflation following IMF market “liberalisation” in their own country, let alone reach out to others.
Perhaps, more importantly, the Russian state was looking to realign its image with that of the West. However, when the Iraq war began in 2003, Putin saw an opportunity to rebuild relationships in the Arab region. Significantly, becoming a member of the International Quartet on the Arab–Israeli peace.
There then became a clear indication in the change of foreign policy. Putin felt that Russia was being treated as a second-rate country by the West, so therefore not only struck up tensions with the West but also began to reclaim its dominance in the East.
When the Arab Spring took place in January 2011, a great opportunity emerged for Russia. Whilst the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt saw Russia follow a similar rhetoric to the West, it was the uprising in Libya which saw a clash of strategy. Gaddafi’s resistance to the uprising taking place in Libya saw the West take it upon themselves to intervene. Something both the Arab League and Russia condemned strongly.
Then came the turmoil in Syria. The West eventually came to the conclusion that they vehemently opposed Bashar al-Assad’s regime, thus leaving Russia to represent Syria as an ally.
There is a plurality of reasons for this. One of these could be that Russia felt betrayed by the West with their intervention in Libya, leaving them no choice but to strongly support Assad. Another is that, if the Assad regime was to be overthrown, Russia would lose its last remaining supporter in the region, with Syria turning its dependence to the US rather than Russia, thus conceding defeat in the region.
The collapse of Assad could also mean one less enemy of Israel in a Middle Eastern proxy war between Russia and the West. However, opposition to a colonising regime is not enough to justify the presence of a self-accountable, Syrian dictator who, despite his position of responsibility and authority, allegedly used chemical weapons on his own people. In this respect, Israel and Syria are both breaking international law, and the West and Russia – respectively – are condoning this through their historical ties with both nations.
Finally, Russia’s population is estimated to be made up of 12-15% Muslims (if you count Chechnya as a Russian province). Putin, perhaps afraid of radical ideas crossing into Russia, stood by Assad in an attempt to prevent this from happening. Then there is obviously the benefits that Syria brings to Russia: arms contracts, oil investments and naval access. This relationship has been a historical one, with Syria’s Ba’ath party aligning itself with the USSR’s socialist ideology.
Putin’s recent election in Russia, however, presents the Arab world with a continuation of a presence reminiscent of the bipolar age of the Cold War. For Russia to keep a sustainable economy, it needs to hold its economic weight within the region. With this leverage as an arms client comes the promise of security for Russia. Putin’s erratic and spontaneous behaviour in turn leaving an air of uncertainty in the Arab world.
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Trenin, D. (2017). What Is Russia Up To in the Middle East?. [online] Ft.com. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/2ab30a6c-d128-11e7-b781-794ce08b24dc [Accessed 1 Apr. 2018].
Unnikrishnan, N. Purushothaman, U. (2017) Russia in Middle East: Playing the Long Game? India Quarterly: A Journal of International Affairs, Vol 73, Issue 2, 2017 pp. 251 – 258 https://doi-org.manchester.idm.oclc.org/10.1177/0974928417700788